Big farm, big deal

Last but not least on my round-up of what was blogged while I was putting my feet up, my eye was caught by this article from Madeleine Bunting on a massive land deal on Mali (bought by the Libyans). It is so far from least that I have created an entirely new category Land Tenure to house it. I should be blogging a lot more about land as it is critical to just about every conservation and development project* I have ever come across.

These kind of land deals are serious business in Africa these days, and so they should be. Africa has got a lot of land which is underutilised. Various problems raise their head. From a conservation perspective unutilised land might have a lot of utility as a biodiversity reserve. I’m generally not a big fan of trying to cover half the earth in protected areas, but that is not to say there are not good arguments for adding to what we’ve got, especially in lesser known habitats. Moreover, as this blog is certainly prepared to argue, creating a protected area is not necessary to conserving habitat. However, plonking a new big agricultural project smack down in the middle  of a biodiversity hotspot, as I have seen happen, really does not count as a good idea.

Another problem with land deals is you always have to ask: whose land is it? Unfortunately the politicians’ answer does not always accord with local views on the matter. As with any such large investments, even ignoring the lure of corruption, there are often incentives for officials and politicians to simplify a more complex situation on the ground in order to appeal to investors. If all of this translated into full compensation for those affected and better services for all this would be less of a problem, but Africa’s governance problems have severely eroded governments’ capacity to act as an honest broker across all sorts of issues. The strength of feeling over this incredibly sensitive issue should never be underestimated; a major land deal between S Korea and Madagascar was cited as a factor in the less-than-constitutional change of government there in 2009.

But, the thing that often gets missed in all of these discussions is the question: why is this land underutilised? It certainly isn’t all remote wilderness. Agriculture in much of sub-Saharan Africa is a byword for inefficient production. Governments are now seeking to resolve this by bringing in foreign expertise and investment, but the fact is that, around here at least, they could do much to free up the agricultural sector without selling out their countrymen. Government run marketing boards and cooperatives are horrendously inept, and it is hard to see what benefits they bring smallholder farmers; however evil the much abused middle-man is, he at least has the incentive to get the best kind of inputs (seed, fertiliser, pesticides) to the farmers at the right time of year. Unfortunately politicians like to take a rather paternalistic attitude to rural farmers when in fact often the best thing they could do is just get right out of the way other than a few very basic market interventions such as subsidised inputs (ref recent stories on Malawi) and setting floor prices on staple produce (to limit the ‘evilness’ of the middle men).

Finally, governments could clear up land tenure properly so farmers could use their land as collateral on loans. But that would limit politicians’ scope for making those big deals they love so much … so not much chance of that happening any time soon.

* By which I mean either straight conservation or combined conservation and development project. Obviously there are all sorts of education and health related interventions which have nothing to do with land tenure. It is, though, also a critical issue in recovery after natural disasters such as the 2010 Haiti earthquake, see David Week’s recent remarks on the issue. (Refer also to the post and comments on ActionAid Australia’s blog; it seems the government Haiti, in echoes of what I see here, was never much interested in land tenure reform or clarity before the earthquake either.)

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